When visiting Brazil, most tourists celebrate Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, where the glamorous balls and vibrant artistry of the Samba Parade are world renowned. But if you prefer mingling with the locals, dancing to live music, and an ultra-casual atmosphere, then Carnival in Salvador; a city northeast of Rio, is the place to be. Plus, Salvador’s large Afro-Brazilian population makes it one of Brazil’s most culturally unique cities and gives its more informal Carnival an African flavour.
1 Plan ahead: Brazil requires a tourist visa for some, so check out the nearest Brazilian consulate for instructions. UK passport holders don’t need a visa, GOV. UK website says “Make sure you comply with Brazilian immigration laws on arrival in the country. You must satisfy the Federal Police (the Brazilian immigration authority) of your intended purpose of visit. You will need to be able to demonstrate that you have enough money for the duration of your stay, and provide details of your accommodation and evidence of return or onward travel. Make sure your passport is stamped. If it is not, you may be fined on departure. Keep your immigration landing card. You’ll need it when you leave. If you lose it you may be fined.
Carnival officially begins 40 days before Easter, so the actual dates vary from year to year. Check your calendar and be sure to book a flight and hotel far in advance, as this is peek tourist season in Brazil.
2 Spend at least a week in Salvador during Carnival season, especially if you love to party. Carnival in this city is one big block party that generally lasts from Thursday to Ash Wednesday.
3 Buy an Abada (costume). If you really want to go native, you’ll need to dress the part. Besides, it makes for a good souvenir. They are available online as well as in most department stores in Salvador.
4 Attend a street parade called a trio-eletrico or bloco. This is the main event in Salvador, so you may want to attend more than one. Each trio-eletrico features live music played by some of Brazil’s top artists. Also, each trio-eletrico follows a different course through the city, so you can see a different part of Salvador.
Trio-eletricos are semitrailers decked out with massive stereo sound systems and set up like a stage; for bands to rock out as they move slowly through the city. This tradition began in 1950 when two musicians and a driver (thus the name, trio) drove a pickup truck slowly down the street, while the musicians played. Many claim Salvador is the true birthplace of modern Brazilian Carnival traditions, many of which are practiced throughout the country.
5 Check out one of the afro-blocos or afoxes, which feature music by local Bahian (Salvador is the capital of the state, Bahia) artists that play axe, ijexa and other African-inspired rhythms. These blocos often feature people dressed in African costumes as well.
6 Find a Barraca (literally, shack); a kind of portable bar, stationed along the beach. Drink a caipirinha, Brazil’s signature cocktail that’s a mix of lime juice, sugar and cachaca (hard rum distilled from sugar cane). Relax as you listen to the music blaring from the giant speakers lined up near each barraca, or dance and flail about like all the other drunks.
When in doubt, talk to the locals, as they know best. They can give you tips on the best venues for trio-eletricos and barracas. Also, ask them where to shop for the best Carnival costumes or abadas.
Don’t miss some of Brazil’s greatest musicians, many of whom are featured in their own trio-eletrico. Gilberto Gil, Ivete Sangalo, Daniela Mercury, Carlinhos Brown, Timbalada, Margareth Menezes, Olodum and Cheiro de Amor are some of the most popular.
Remember Portuguese is the official language of Brazil and should not be confused with Spanish, so if you only speak Spanish you would be better advised to travel to Spain, particularly if you wish to move permanantly or buy property, as there you will find agencies who speak your language. While the languages may look the same on paper, they sound quite different. Get a Portuguese phrase book on CD to hear the Brazilian pronunciations and memorise the essentials. English is not widely spoken, especially outside the tourist districts, so be prepared.
Don’t go it alone: They say there is safety in numbers and this is especially true for Carnival. All the festivities draw large crowds and unfortunately thieves take advantage of it. It is best to use the buddy system to stay safe and you are advised to leave valuables (such as jewellery, cameras, watches, and important documents) at the hotel. Only take necessary cash with you, and use a disposable camera if you want to take pictures; Keep a cell phone on a lanyard round your neck and inside your clothes.